How can occupational health data inform corporate wellbeing strategies?

Need to know:

  • Analysing data from occupational health questionnaires and absence services can identify health issues and trends in the workplace.
  • Employee consent must be obtained if an employer wants to use data collected by occupational health services.
  • Employers should use as broad a range of employee health data, including occupational health insight, to shape a wellbeing programme.

Occupational health data can help an organisation design a corporate wellbeing strategy that meets the needs of its employees. For example, if an employer discovers that work-related stress is causing sickness absence and occupational health referrals, it can look at job structures or steer towards initiatives aimed at promoting mental health resilience; equally, if musculoskeletal issues arise in high numbers, it might be time to look at programmes that encourage time away from desks. 

If a link between occupational health and wider wellbeing is to be forged effectively, however, taking the right approach to collecting and using this data is key.

Data collection

New starter health questionnaires can give insight into the types of initiatives that might be required, says Carl Laidler, director of wellbeing at Health Shield. “These questionnaires can highlight anything from asthma and allergies to musculoskeletal and mental health issues,” he explains.

More frequent monitoring can be achieved through health questionnaires, such as those for night workers, as well as display system equipment (DSE) and musculoskeletal assessments.

Management referrals and stress interventions can also yield valuable results. Although the numbers may be small, the results can provide warning signs of a workplace problem, such as increased workloads or high levels of inactivity.

More data can be collected where a first day absence service is in place, adds Luke Brown, head of operations at BHSF Occupational Health. “An employee will get a call from an occupational health nurse on the first day of absence to find out what’s wrong and whether any further support such as physiotherapy or a GP appointment might help,” he explains. “Trends can emerge in this data that can be used in a wellbeing strategy.”

Data protection rules 

However an organisation goes about collecting the data, it must be mindful of data protection requirements when dealing with any employee information.

However, occupational health requires a different approach, says Dr Chris Tomkins, head of wellbeing at Axa PPP Healthcare. “Wellbeing data such as the calls to an employee assistance programme (EAP) must be anonymised,” he explains. “Occupational health data is slightly different. As it’s for the benefit of the employer, it doesn’t need to be anonymised, as long as the employee has given consent.”

This consent can be sought when the information is collected, but this is not always necessary. “Many organisations make this consent part of the employment contract. An employee would sign up to it when they join,” says Brown.

Quality information

Although occupational health data can provide insight into the health of the workforce and the wellbeing interventions that employees would value, it is important not to rely too heavily on it.

Given the limited nature of sources such as new starter questionnaires and management referrals, the data can often refer to a relatively small pool of employees rather than denoting a broader workplace trend, while more prevalent trends might go unchecked if employees are not reaching out to occupational health services about them.

Occupational health can also be reactive. While this is an important element of helping staff stay in and return to work once work-related illness strikes, overarching wellbeing strategies should also incorporate a more proactive, preventative approach aimed at keeping staff healthy in the first place.

Anna Spender, director of actuarial and data analytics at Psyon, says: “Once employee health problems have fed through into occupational health data it can be too late.

“Employers should use this insight to ensure they react to problems in the workplace but, when it comes to shaping a wellbeing programme, they need to look at a wider dataset. This could include absence statistics, insurance claims data and EAP utilisation figures.”

Tracking success

Rather than discounting occupational health data for being too reactive, though, organisations should use this to their advantage, as it can be a helpful indicator of the success of a wellbeing strategy.

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Laidler, to illustrate the value of monitoring occupational health, points to a client that was receiving occupational health management referrals almost every day. “We worked with [the organisation] to introduce health and wellbeing initiatives and the referrals stopped altogether,” he says. “Initially we thought we’d lost the contract, but it was actually a sign of success.”

If measured both before and after the implementation of a programme, occupational health data can create a clear picture of the development of a workforce over time.